Archives for posts with tag: identity

9780062217134Robyn Schneider’s Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Katherine Teagen Books, $17.99, out today) contains some really horrific and traumatic experiences. The title says it all. There is indeed a severed head, and a multitude of broken hearts. How a book that starts with a decapitation and ends with the death of a dog (via coyote) manages to not be the most depressing books ever is kind of miraculous. Yet the story is a rather light, romantic, and universal quest about how to break away from the facade you’ve somehow created to become the person you really are.

Ezra is a varsity tennis player, slated to become Prom King, with the stereotypical perfect girlfriend. Then the girlfriend cheats on him and he gets hit by a car (see horrific and traumatic). Ezra starts senior year with a cane and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where he belongs, now that he’s no longer the tennis player/prom king, with a hot girlfriend. Ezra is an interesting character; he’s smarter than anyone (including himself) seems to have realized, he’s witty, he’s more of a leader than he understands, and he’s a defender of children’s playgrounds. He’s a little naive, but that’s where Toby and Cassidy come in. They show him a world beyond the security of his neighborhood and push him outside of his comfort zone. Cassidy is the unique, beautiful girl, who is just out of reach and Toby is the best friend that somewhere in middle school Ezra forgot to be friends with. Ezra sees them as taking him on a new journey. What he doesn’t learn until later is that they are the journey, one he started after the accident with his own first steps.

*** Since the above review was written back in March, the name and cover of this book have changed. I’m of two minds. I liked the title. I can see why it might not be so ‘marketable’, but it was distinctive and true to the story. The new title, The Beginning of Everything, sounds like too many other YA novels. But this title, too, is true to the story. This book isn’t about finding yourself in high school, it’s about figuring out that you need to find yourself. Or discovering that who you’ve been is not necessarily who you are. Or who you will be. And it’s a story about the journey that leads to that journey. I’ve decided to keep the old image in, though along with my original impressions. If nothing else, for a glimpse into the publishing industry, which I find enormously fascinating. But if you walk into your local bookstore and request Robyn Schneider’s new book, be sure to ask for The Beginning of Everything. It still starts with a severed head and it still ends with a dead dog. And there are broken hearts. But that is just the beginning.

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Note: I should have read the marketing materials better! The Beginning of Everything is now due out in September.

In Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine Books, $17.99, out in June), Rafe is tired of being ‘the gay kid’. He lives in a supportive home with parents who are activists on his behalf and for community in general. His school has protected him, and he regularly speaks at organizations about diversity and education. But he needs a break. He needs a change. He needs to feel like he can be himself without constantly working for ‘the cause’. Rafe applies to a boarding school out East and figures that going there will be his chance to not exactly go back into the closet, but maybe not be so publicly out of it. This isn’t the first YA book to deal with an openly gay teenager, who tries to put on a mantle of not being an openly gay teenager. Pink, by  Lili Wilkinson (winner of a Stonewall ALA honor award), tells a similar story about a girl who changes schools for similar reasons. Ava, however, spends more time questioning her sexuality and the ending leaves her story somewhat ambiguous. In Openly Straight, Rafe never doubts that he is gay. It’s not his sexuality that’s in question, it’s his identity. This story will appeal to anyone who has experienced feeling reduced to one facet of themselves, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ : ‘the honor student’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the Asian girl’, ‘the popular one’, ‘the band geek’, ‘the fat guy’, ‘the new kid’, ‘the singer’, ‘the . . .’. We are all complex individuals. But as much as Rafe wants to be more than a label, he slowly realizes that denying part of himself turns him in to something else entirely: ‘the liar’.

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Here again, I feel a certain divisiveness in my reactions to a book that I’ve recently read. I’m desperate to talk about it, but I’m a bit wary of actually recommending it. I think the former impulse is winning out, however. I picked up A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, $17.99) super excited to read a new YA title, especially one that deals with gay and lesbian themes. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the various ways that authors have approached this topic, especially since we finally seem to have gotten over the ‘traumatic coming out’ narrative rut.

Ask the Passengers contains a very interesting protagonist. Astrid had a strong narrative voice, but was also somewhat detached from her life and environment. I liked that, because I often feel that way, like I’m watching, but not really participating. One of the recurring scenes in the book is of Astrid laying on the picnic table in the back yard, sending love and questions to the passengers of the planes flying above. Again, this concept felt incredibly relatable. I love traveling, because I like experiencing new places and cultures, but I like traveling, because I like moving. There was something intriguing about a high-school girl, stagnant in her home town, thinking about the people on the move above her. Her own struggles with the confinement of living in a small town, where she does not identify with the dominant way of thinking, were palpable in these scenes. Again, I connected with her there. I also connected with her resistance to the pressure pushing her in a direction that was not her direction. I felt the exhaustion of fighting back, and appreciated that she stayed the course.

What I did not like was the melodramatic trauma of dealing with her sexuality. Her confusion was normal, but overdone. Her girlfriend was pushy and super annoying. Her ‘gay best friends’ struck me as rather ignorant and irritating. Finally, the response, even from this small town, was so negative, it just didn’t feel very realistic to me. Maybe it would have if the book was set in the early 1990s, but the cultural references indicate that it is set in the 2010s. I’m not delusional and I realize that homophobia still exists, but the book seemed really imbalanced. It was as if she, and her friends, were the first kids to come out in this town ever. Highly unlikely.

What I did appreciate, however, was Astrid’s distinction between “lying” and “not telling everyone everything, just because they asked”. As she works through her own sexual orientation, she does so internally. Thinking. Critiquing. Speculating. Her friends, her parents, and even her girlfriend, all demand that she ‘come out’, ‘tell the world’, ‘tell the truth’. When accused of lying about herself, she tells her best friend, “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. . . . Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?” This conversation really struck a chord with me, because I firmly believe that it is one of these crucial aspects of teenagers that adults often ignore. Teenagers are accused of secrecy, sullenness, being cagey, or rude, but I’ve always felt that there is a larger developmental process occurring. I think that teens are starting to understand that they are separate human beings, with their own thoughts, and that they start to develop a sense of privacy. A sense of their right to privacy and that they can have thoughts that they don’t share with anyone. Or that they themselves can chose who they share their personal thoughts with.

Insofar as Ask the Passengers deals with teen identity, philosophy, and relationships, it is a good book, and one I would recommend. The lesbian plot line, however, was forced, unnecessary, and not remotely believable. While I commend the author for attempting to augment YA LBGT lit, unfortunately I think this book took a huge step backwards in that area.

9780316084246During Teen Read Week, back in October, we had a display of our teen customers’ favorite books. One of our high school-aged staff members recommended Kody Keplinger’s The D.U.F.F. (Poppy Books, $8.99). Around the same time, independent booksellers started carrying Kobo e-readers in store and I downloaded The D.U.F.F.  as my test book. Since I have a stack of books and ARCs sitting on my desk waiting to be read, I kind of forgot about that ebook, until last night. Bianca is the ‘Duff’: the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to her two gorgeous best friends. I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but wow, I could relate. My two best friends were (are) beautiful and that’s one of the many things that this book really gets right — the recognition that we all kind of feel like the Duff.

I’m going to admit right now that this book made me feel kind of old. There is a shocking amount of sex. And the fact that I was shocked is what made me feel old. At the risk of dating myself, a contraband copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was passed covertly around (the girls) in my 6th grade classroom. I certainly read books containing sex when I was in high school, but they were adult novels, not YA books. When reading The D.U.F.F, I almost felt a bit uncomfortable. Bianca doesn’t just have sex, she uses sex . . . as a way to punish herself . . . as a weapon . . . as an escape. Her immaturity and inability to maintain a healthy relationship, not to mention her own self-loathing, was discomforting and seemed to embody all of the reasons adults typically use to discourage teens from engaging in sexual activity. What impressed me with the book, however, is that Keplinger didn’t just dismiss teen sex as an ‘everyone is doing it, it’s not a big deal’ thing. Bianca matures, slowly but drastically, during the narrative. She steps outside of herself and starts to see the insecurities of the people around her. Her two best friends love her fiercely. They don’t think of her as the duff; they value her, see her beauty, and consider themselves the duff in comparison. Bianca starts to understand that duff isn’t actually a ‘designation’ it is a state of mind. In a rather poignant moment, she is in the girls’ bathroom with the school ‘whore’ who has just had a pregnancy scare. She realizes:

I didn’t know Vikki that well. I didn’t know what her home life was like or anything that personal aside from her boy issues. And standing there in the bathroom, listening as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been running away from something, too. If I’d been judging her, thinking of her as a slut all this time, when, in reality, we were living scarily similar lives.

Calling Vikki a slut or a whore was just like calling someone the Duff. It was insulting and hurtful, and it was one of those titles that just fed off an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.

It’s Bianca’s gradual self-awareness that made this book so powerful. Even more impressive is that Keplinger was seventeen when she wrote it. It turns out I was wrong. This isn’t a book about teen sexuality; it’s a book about growing up female and discovering your own value in a world that is trying to keep you down, telling you you’re a whore, a bitch, or even a duff. Maybe YA novels haven’t changed that much.

I wanted to title this post ‘for a teenager who wants a book that is better than its title/cover’, but no one’s ever asked me for that. Sarah Dessen is a perfect example, though. I picked up one her books years ago, thinking it would be an easy read for the train, and was really surprised at how well written it was and how complex the characters were. She continues to write and although I haven’t read all of her works, I can confidently recommend them (especially This Lullaby). So what about for someone who has read all of Sarah Dessen? I usually recommend Stephanie Perkin’s two books: Anna and the French Kiss (Speak, $9.99) and Lola and the Boy Next Door (Dutton Books, $16.99).

When I hand Anna and the French Kiss to a young/mid teen, I often see the parent’s eyes open a little wider and I feel compelled to indicate that the book isn’t nearly as salacious as it sounds. There are approximately two significant kisses. I’m sorry to say they are both relatively innocent. The book is actually about a girl who is sent to boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school. It deals with living abroad, making friends, discovering a new culture and then reexamining your own. There is actually more sexuality in Lola and the Boy Next Door (although mostly off the page)Lola is dating an older man (22 to her 17), whom both of her fathers hate. She loves fashion and never leaves the house twice in the same outfit, wig, or accessories. Although Lola often tries to convince herself that she’s old for her years, she still struggles with identity, especially when her her appearance is forever changing. Cricket Bell — the boy next door — wears great pants, invents cool devices, and is determined to help Lola see herself for who she actually is. Set in San Francisco, with a delightful and colorful cast of characters, including Anna from the first book, Lola is a fun read that will surprise you with its depth and quality. 

Fantasy has certainly experienced a resurgence lately, but most YA novels are known — and challenged — for their realism, their stark depictions of the darker side of life, their raw representations of drugs, sexuality, abuse, pain, depression, strong language, and violence. The two sides most often pitted against each other are those who want to protect teenagers and those who think that teens ‘know’ all about these things anyway so what’s the point in trying to hide it from them. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. Books can be powerful, but they aren’t all-powerful. They are one aspect of a teen’s overall experience. And while books can offer a safe space for exploration, I sometimes wonder if books (along with movies and tv and music, etc) can start to normalize an experience that may or may not be common. Fortunately YA novels are so vastly different that they can’t possibly be considered a collective and in my experience teens are pretty good at finding the books they want to read, with or without the permission of the adults around them. What I most appreciate is how many YA authors clearly respect teens; they offer questions and complicated concepts rather than trying to preach, or teach.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, $9.99) has been out for a while, but it’s one of those books that I recommend over and over because it so clearly captures the high school experience in a way that is both hilarious and poignant. Melinda, who has stopped speaking due to a traumatic event that happened at a party over the summer, carefully observes her peers, teachers, parents, and community. Her wry commentary on the hypocrisy and chaos around her aptly expresses her own internal chaos and struggles with identity.


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